12 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a TV Writer

It’s a hard world out there in TV Land, boys and girls. The following advice is addressed primarily to wimmens, but no matter what your gender do yourself a favor and listen to what Jessica Gao has to say:

some tv showby Jessica Gao

1. Job titles are varied and confusing. If you ever look at TV credits, it’s hard to find “writer” anywhere. Because of the writers’ union’s rules (more on the union later), there are several different titles for writers based on their level of power. Upper-level writers have the word “producer” in their title (e.g. co-executive producer, supervising producer, etc). Lower-level writers are executive story editors, story editors, and staff writers. In movies, the director is the king of the project. In TV, it’s a writer called the “showrunner,” which is exactly what it sounds like: the person who runs the show. It’s commonly the show’s creator but not always. The showrunner is credited as “Executive Producer,” and while most shows have several executive producers, only one is the showrunner. (To add to the confusion, not all producers are writers.)

 2. It’s really, really hard being “the only one” in the room if you’re a woman or person of color. I’m often the only person of color and the only woman in the writers’ room. I feel I have to (and want to) represent everything that otherwise won’t be represented if I don’t. These are things the white male writers don’t have to worry about. They can spend their time only focused on jokes and what to order for lunch, but I can’t. On the one hand, I don’t want to be the PC police or a constant naysayer — I will be the only person who objects to something, like yet another tired arranged marriage storyline given to a South Asian character, or that the main female love interest has no defining character traits other than “really cool and nice.” On the other hand, those stories/characters legitimately suck balls and I hate to see them happen over and over again, so I have to speak up. I’ve learned the best (and only effective) way to shoot down a sexist or racist story/joke is to beat it with a better pitch.

3. Everyone has a hand in every script. Even though an episode of a show says “written by so-and-so,” every single person on that writing staff contributed to the script. On comedies, all the writers talk out each episode’s story and outline together. Then the person assigned to that episode will refine the outline to turn in to the network for notes. After getting the network’s notes, the assigned writer turns in a “writer’s draft” of the script, which then gets additional notes from the showrunner or head writer. At some point, the whole writing staff will pitch in, going page by page and line by line together to make every bit of the script better.

4. Don’t feel pressure to be one of the guys. The whole room is already filled with guys. They don’t need another one. But what don’t they have in the room? Statistically speaking, another female writer. According to the Writers Guild of America’s staffing brief for the 2013-2014 TV season, only 29 percent of staffed writers were women. So doesn’t it make more sense to fill the role that is severely underserved in the room? The sole woman in the room offers a perspective that no one else in the room has. That’s incredibly valuable and it shouldn’t be hidden so a bunch of dudes are more comfortable.

Read it all at Cosmopolitan